Chapter 11: Pro Patria
One of the most crucial steps of the thieving business was judging the physical dimensions of the loot before trying to remove it. This sounded obvious, but every rookie since the beginning of time (or at least the beginning of loot) had an uh-oh story. Some of the dumb ones had nothing but uh-oh stories. What was an uh-oh story?
Take a hypothetical thief, Johnny Pants. Late one night, Mr. Pants climbed through the second-story window of a Parisian mansion. Inside was a luxuriant study, full of treasures and antiques, and on a pedestal in that study was nothing less than the legendary lance of the legendary Sir Lancelot.
Lancelot's lance was nearly as famous as Lancelot because Lancelot lanced a lot. The lance of Lancelot was used by Lancelot a lot, and because there was a lot of Lancelot, he could lift a lot of lance. Lancelot advanced lancing as he advanced his lance; foe after foe stood no chance against his enhanced lance stance. And whether romance or finance, the lance dance advanced Lancelot's lot a lot. But even legends pass away. In time, the lance found its way by happenstance to France where it entranced Johnny Pants at a glance.
The fictional thief had come intending to pilfer a few rare books, but this was too glorious a prize to ignore. He seized the lance from its pedestal and tiptoed victoriously back to the window.
The window around a corner at the edge of the study.
The corner whose two walls formed a hypotenuse shorter than the length of the lance.
The lance that therefore couldn't go around the corner.
And therefore couldn't leave the room.
At this juncture, Johnny might say many heated and vulgar things, but the first thought to fall out his mouth would inevitably be "Uh-oh".
This would be Johnny's uh-oh story. Every thief had one, even Catwoman, though the stars would fade to ash before she shared that whopper. Secret or not, it still served as a sharp reminder; Catwoman was exactingly careful about what she tried to carry around.
Tonight that was proving difficult.
"And this is Dr. Pyg's femur stress tests from yesterday. The man's a hack, but he's had tenure since the last ice age so his job's friggen' bulletproof."
Catwoman stared at the door. "Uh-huh."
The pile of papers her captive scientist was adding to in her freshly-stolen briefcase looked awfully large. Large was bad. Large was heavy and awkward. Large was the foundation for an uh-oh story. This was not the time for an uh-oh story.
"Speaking of bulletproof, I added a few ballistics charts for light calibers to different extremities."
She sighed. "Uh-huh."
"Long story short: don't get shot in the extremities."
"Thanks for the tip."
"Don't mention it."
Once he got over the shock of his uninvited guest with her uninvited threats, Daniel - the glassy-eyed researcher she found - proved surprisingly eager to help. She could only assume the Dark Knight School of Motivating Confessions and Bean-spilling had its perks. The kid (they were probably the same age, but he seemed as gangly as any adolescent) explained to her that this chamber was where they tested combustives and pyrotechnics. Back in the day, they used the place to see what conditions the influenza virus could survive.
It seemed risky to explain the particulars of why she was here, so Catwoman had trouble articulating what she was looking for. She eventually asked to see results from the most recent tests. The clues would be freshest. At least it killed time; no doubt Batman was right behind her with better questions.
"-And the last experiment my team fit in this week was just some general sensory organ melting points." Catwoman cringed. Daniel didn't see her reaction and chuckled. "You'd think since fire's practically the oldest tool known to man, there'd be more solid data on the subject, but nope. Funny that."
"Corpses can't feel pain."
"Still, how can you stand there and be so casually, well, ghoulish?"
"Look, Miss Trespasser, I respect that the ethical underpinnings for medical research are nuanced, but I save lives." He stuck out his chin with casual pride. "Every test here helps an engineer somewhere build a better helmet, better bandages, safer cars, stronger parachutes-"
"And yes, better weapons. Those save lives too. That's what happens when you donate your body to science." He shrugged. "Well, the weapon part isn't strictly spelled out in most-"
"Donate!?" Catwoman grabbed him by the collar and shoved him back into his chair. "Donate? Is that supposed to be funny?"
"Judging by the look on your face, I'm guessing the answer is no."
She backhanded him. "You're a monster."
"OW!" He rubbed his cheek. "I'm a scientist, not a mad scientist. There's a bold line between the two."
"Yeah, and it says: 'Don't kidnap the local peasantry for twisted experiments in the bowels of your castle!'"
He held his hands in front of his face. "Don't - wait, what? Kidnap?"
"You-" She searched his eyes. " … You don't know."
"What? What don't I know? Please tell me what I don't know."
Catwoman frowned but didn't hit him again. She paced away thoughtfully, hands on her hips. "How many people have you researchers used?"
Daniel stood and moved so there was a desk between them. "Overall? About thirty."
"We started back in August. Nine cadavers the first month. Not great quality either. Then the supply trickled off; we only got two in September. Messed up our workload something fierce. The Army told us it was a bureaucratic thing with the medical schools. Some paperwork snafu."
"Yeah, there's not a lot of places to get a corpse, surprisingly enough. Most come through a ring of universities that folks will their remains to once they kick the bucket. I think its legally called a gift. The schools are the big clearinghouses."
He shrugged. "I heard you can also pick up executed convicts now and then, but they're sort of fried."
Catwoman winced. "I didn't need to know that."
"Just- just go on with the medical schools."
"Not sure what the problem was, but the Army solved it eventually. We began to get new shipments around late October, maybe the start of November. Around two or three a week. Heh, gave us lab rats plenty to do, believe you me. Like Chirstmas come early for some of the new guys who missed the first batch."
Catwoman felt the stirrings of a temper behind her eyes. "Yeah?"
"Oh, yeah. Last pair they picked up was really great, not a scratch and hardly a day old; virtually no decomposition." He spoke with the relish of a sculptor finding a flawless strata of marble. "You see, they usually come from car accidents or typhoid which really limits our opportunities. This pair though? Unprecedented."
Catwoman tried very hard to keep her speech calm. "Was this pair ... a man and a woman?"
"Young? Arrived five nights ago?"
"Yeah, friends of yours?"
She took a step towards him, voice dangerously level. "In a roundabout way."
"Wow. Um ..." Daniel swallowed and stepped back. "Sorry. If it interests you, uh, they've done a great service to humanit-"
"Shut it. What interests me is what was done to them, and furthermore, what I'm going to do to-"
A sudden stampede of noise echoed from down the hallway, a burst of yelled orders and shoving. Catwoman froze. Batman! It sounded like half the base was trampling through the level, right past where she had left him. Warnings about a manhunt floated through her head. Catwoman cringed. She knew as well as anyone not to underestimate the Dark Knight, but she had a sinking feeling he wasn't overcoming that.
The rational part of her brain narrowly pushed down the urge to dash towards the scuffle. Instead, she unwound her whip and struck the light switch, casting the lab into darkness as complete as the hallway outside. Then she turned and flicked it around Daniel's head, stifling his noise of surprise. Catwoman flew forward and pinned him against a desk.
They waited in the darkness: her anxious, him baffled. A minute later, the noise died away. Catwoman let go and cautiously turned on the lights. Daniel pulled off his impromptu gag and spit. "What was that?"
Catwoman exhaled in relief and deftly rewound the whip. "Thanks."
She raised an eyebrow in surprise. "You could have cried out for help."
"Well, yeah, until you tackled me. Rude, by the way."
She dropped her arms incredulously. "Well, why didn't you? I've been nothing but a threat to you."
"I'm aware of that."
She studied him. "In fact, you've been really calm this whole time, all things considered."
He shrugged. "I suppose."
He looked at her thoughtfully. "A few things."
"Besides the threats of bodily harm, well, and then the actual bodily harm, you're one of the nicest people I've talked to in a long time."
"Lot of grumps around here. Furthermore lady, you got legs for miles. I respect that."
"No, believe me. You hang out here for half a year, that's a big deal. Seeing you is nigh-on spiritual."
"Third, in regards to you being found out, it really doesn't matter what I do. I could give you a pair of ruby slippers and a map to Switzerland; there's no way you're getting off the Fort. They're gonna catch you and try you for who knows what. That's if you're not shot to pieces in the process." He held up his hands apologetically. "No offense."
"Right, So I think to myself, why hurry the inevitable? Didn't want to give you an excuse to slice me up 'fore they took you away. Plus, I get to see those fine stems in the meantime." He whistled appreciatively.
"Can we change the subject?"
"Sure. Fourth, and most importantly, I'm pretty sure you don't exist."
Catwoman stared at him dumbly.
"I don't know how to respond to that."
"It's not your fault, if that makes you feel any better."
"Round of applause for that self-esteem, but I'm pretty sure you're a figment of my imagination."
She spoke patiently, like one would to a slow child, "Daniel, I'm very confident I exist."
"Of course you are. Any psychic manifestation of mine will have read Descartes. But empirically, the odds are stacked against you."
"It doesn't matter whether I convince you or not, you being a figment and all."
She raised an eyebrow. "Humor me."
"Think of it this way: what are the odds that some lady would break into the Fort in the middle of winter just to see me?"
She grudgingly shrugged. "Low."
"Low. And what are the odds that this lady would look you and, you know, dress like that?"
"That's right, next to zero. And that was a complement, by the way."
"Hmph," She crossed her arms, "No wonder you don't see many women."
He ignored the remark. "But might a man in my circumstances dream of a lady who looks like you and dresses like that? Certainly. No crazier than any other dream. It's downright likely if you're feeling Freudian."
"Okay, but you're not dreaming, you're awake."
"But am I?"
Catwoman generally respected philosophy as a cultured pursuit until that point when she felt the urge to slap someone out of an infinite regression paradox.
She restrained herself. "Let's assume you are."
"Suppose I am awake. There are, shall we say, alternative states of wakefulness."
She eyed him suspiciously. Catwoman met her fair share of crazy people prowling the night. She tried not to judge - stones and glass houses and all that jazz - but she knew that you could often spot the normal-looking ones if you could just get them on the right subject.
"What do you mean by that?"
"How do I put this gently? As I said, it's not easy here. Sure, we do important work, but we throw ourselves into that work, me more than most. Maybe we lose a little sleep. Go a little stir crazy. Start picking up some funny habits." Daniel was building towards a rambling rant, speaking with loose hand gestures. "Lighting things on fire sounds like a lot of fun, sure, but that only lasts a few minutes; the rest is paperwork. So much paperwork, you wouldn't believe it! Do you have a lot of paperwork in your job?"
"Not as such, no."
"Well, thank your lucky stars, lady. It's not even for the science, just bureaucracy and bookkeeping! Look, it gets really boring around here and-"
"Daniel, what are you getting at?"
"Do you have any idea what peyote is?"
"That's ... that's probably for the best. Listen, the moral of the story is: I don't know what you're here for, but you seem to at least believe you have the moral high ground, and I have a soft spot for self-righteous crusaders doing dangerous things. It's what got me into medicine. Plus, if you and your friends annoy the brass before you die, that's a plus in my book. They could stand to be taken down a peg, got no respect for workplace satisfaction"
"Wow, Daniel. That's-"
"Okay, but you ought to know that the Army's been taking-"
"I said can it, lady. I'm not in the mood for grand revelations. Besides, I'm going back to school after New Year's, don't much care about this place anymore. It'll be a bad dream as far as I'm concerned. You best get moving."
Catwoman was mildly shock at the kid's major league moxie. It took one to know one. She snapped the heavy briefcase shut, strode up, and gave him a peck on the cheek.
He looked puzzled. "What was that for?"
Catwoman swung the briefcase with both hands right into his mouth.
Daniel spun and flopped onto the floor. A bruise instantly began to rise on his cheek. "OWWWW!" He looked up. "What was that for?!"
"When they come, tell them I hit you until you shared the research. That way you're in the clear."
"Oh. That's smart. Thanks."
Catwoman smiled. "No problem." Then she kicked him in the ribs. Twice.
"OWWW! OOWWWW! What was that for?"
"For being stupid enough to work for a bunch of murderous psychopaths! Don't take jobs where you test flamethrowers in underground bunkers. Go work in a hospital or something. Got it?"
"Good. I'm off for some more self-righteous crusading before they shoot me. Bye!"
To cope with troubling circumstances, a well-adjusted person will often recall fond memories of happier days. Batman didn't have many of those. That was okay. He wasn't the coping type.
As a rule, happy and well-adjusted people were terrible at infiltrating military sites, though he wasn't doing much better at the moment. He wished he could say this was his first time arrested by military police, but there was that winter in the gulag. In fairness, he only stayed twenty-three days, which was a terrible experience by the standards of anywhere else on the planet but very reasonable for a gulag. Besides, Aleksei had taught him how to count cards and treat frostbite, so his stay wasn't all a waste. Tonight might not be as fun.
After they slapped the handcuffs on, one of the MP's had the bright idea to throw a bag over his head. Laudable initiative, but it didn't matter. Trying to break away when surrounded was a challenge of tactility and body awareness, not sight. Not that he intended to try; no style of Gong Fu could overcome the physics of a seven-man dog pile handcuffed. More importantly, the lieutenant that subdued him was part of the guard detail.
That someone had, in fact, gotten the drop on him was deeply compelling to Batman. It wasn't that his pride was stung. It was, but his prime reaction was curiosity: a scholar in an ignorant land who finally meets a peer he can converse with, though the language they shared was violence. Batman was a superlative fighter. His methods depended on an absolute confidence that he would prevail in any arbitrary encounter at fist-length. He had met or seen perhaps a hundred souls who might best him one-on-one, a list he shortened every year. Most lived in another hemisphere.
And yet he was beaten. So who was this remarkable soldier? Experience had taught Batman again and again that exceptional individuals caused ripples in the world. They were rarely the background noise of someone else's story. Sooner or later they carved their own. The lieutenant was more than just a lieutenant.
But the World's Greatest Detective had to hold his curiosity for another time. Part of his attention was spent considering the blood slowly pooling under the bandage on his sword wound, some was spent counting steps to judge where they were taking him, but mostly he worried if Catwoman had the good sense to stay out of sight. He consoled himself that it was a stupid concern - if there was one thing she could be relied upon to do, it was dodge the authorities.
Still, he worried, and he wondered why. The answer wasn't hard to figure out. Catwoman was his backup plan. She could still get the word out. Sure, that explained his concern.
They dragged him back to the central freezer room and into the freight elevator. They could only fit four guards now. As the door shut, he judged his options. There were two schools of thought in escaping arrest. An old racketeer he once met in Bogotá called them the Jackrabbit and the Wolf. The Jackrabbit believed that the best time to get away was now. Every second in custody gave the policía time to reinforce and find tighter restraints. It was easier to flee on the street than from the back of a squad car, and it was easier to flee from a squad car than from a jail cell. Conversely, the Wolf believed you had to wait. Captors were most alert just after an arrest. Later, once the captive seemed beaten and submissive, the guards would let their guard down. Basically, the two schools differed in whether to look for the first opportunity or the perfect opportunity. Batman found both schools useful, but the Wolf seemed more prudent now: his margin for error at the moment was microscopic. He bide his time.
When they reached the surgery room, he was shoved onto the operating table. Six hands held him down as someone unlocked one of his handcuffs and attached it to a peg on the table. People joked about the contradiction of military efficiency, but this crew gave the phrase plenty of credit. In no time, they removed his belt (easier said than done, it wasn't a typical buckle) then stitched and dressed the wound in his side. His medic must have administrated a shot: his hearing began to fade and his vision swam as they worked. His limbs grew numb and heavy.
But, fortunately or unfortunately, Batman had a fierce tolerance for anesthetics; he came to his senses a few minutes later. The bag was off his head. He was still on the operating table. Someone was talking nearby.
"-Collapsible binoculars. Seven vials of unknown liquids, presumed hazardous. Four vials of unknown powders, presumed hazardous. A small camera. A roll of film. Twenty yards of nylon rope. A folding grapnel. Half a stick of dynamite-"
"Nah, take a whiff of it. That's no dynamite; that's some nitroglycerin substitute."
"Means it's stable."
"How can you tell the difference?"
"Used to be a miner 'fore I enlisted. Learned the difference well."
"I thought a judge sentenced you here."
"Yeah, for blowing up the mine."
"If you blew it up, then ..."
"... I may have learned the difference the hard way."
There was silence.
"Braxton, you don't get to cook for us ever again. All in favor?"
There was a quick muttering of assent.
"Agreed. Moving on, we have a lighter. A magnifying glass. Tweezers. A flashlight. A wire brush. A syringe. A packet of sterile gauze. A large multi-tool. And seventeen throwing knives, the seventeenth sample kindly provided by Lieutenant Wilson."
So his name's Wilson. Batman turned his head to find the speaker.
Someone yelled, "He's awake!"
Bodies moved around him. Batman found it difficult to focus; the chemical hadn't yet worn off. He saw the contents of his utility belt laid on a counter beside him.
"How's he awake?"
"Murray, you got the dosage wrong!"
"Maybe he's just twitching."
"Why would he be twitching?"
"So he's about to die."
"How's that going to make us look?"
"Hey, if he dies, we finally get to sleep."
"Shut your hole. He's not dead, idiots. He's just waking up."
"We could tell for sure if you took that mask off."
"Hey, I tried. You're welcome to try, buddy."
"Drug him again!"
"Then he might die for real."
"When you say 'might', is that a strong might or a weak might?"
The swinging doors opened.
All movement stopped. Batman lifted his head.
Four figures stood in the doorway. In front was Lieutenant Wilson, face thickly-bandaged. Behind him were two older men Batman recognized as Staff Sergeant Hank Jackson and Colonel Abner Tanner. He would have said that Tanner was the head of the Fort, but body language in the room was clearly giving the most deference (or fear) to the fourth visitor, a heavy-set woman of color. Hmm.
The Colonel glared down at him incredulously. "What in God's holy name is this man wearing?"
His guards shrugged. Lieutenant Wilson answered, his voice altered from the broken nose. "We're not sure, sir. We think he's a lunatic."
The Colonel frowned. "Obviously."
The woman briskly walked up and inspected a handful on his cape material.
The Lieutenant stepped forward, "I advise you keep a distance, ma'am. He's dangerous."
She chuckled darkly but moved away, looking at the assorted tools on the nearby table.
"Where's his gun?"
"He wasn't carrying a firearm."
"Really?" She sounded surprised. "I don't see a cudgel or a blackjack here."
"He wasn't armed-" Wilson glanced at the bloody batarang, "with that kind of weapon."
"Then if he didn't hold you at gunpoint and he didn't have a club, how do you explain the crater where your nose used to be, Lieutenant?"
"He hit me, ma'am. You can see the bloodstain on his suit elbow."
"Ah, so he ambushed you. Popped you in the face when you weren't looking."
"He did ambush me, but this strike was later."
"Are you saying that he did that in a fair fight, Slade? With his bare hands?"
Slade had the look of a subordinate who strongly desired to end a conversation. "Yes, ma'am."
"Huh. I don't know whether to be impressed or disappointed."
"I don't think either of us were fighting fair, ma'am."
"Well, Mr. Prizefighter here has been awfully quiet." She stared down at Batman. "Go on, sit up."
Batman slowly sat up. If the guards tensed, she didn't seem to care.
"Good. Now, who are you?"
Batman stared coolly back and said nothing.
She lifted an eyebrow. "Oh, have I been impolite? I haven't introduced myself. My name is Amanda Waller. I'm a special investigator for the United States government vested with plenary legal powers to manage threats ordinary and extraordinary. What does this mean to you? This means I'm your Momma and your Daddy; I'm the Lord and all his angels; I'm Santa Claus; I'm all of them rolled up with sugar on top because right now I'm the only reason you're still alive. Give me what I what and I might be persuaded to continue that policy. Now: Who. Are. You?"
He continued his stare. "I'm Batman."
The room was silent.
"Never heard of you."
The burly staff sergeant stepped forward. "Uh, excuse me, ma'am-"
Amanda pinched the bridge of her nose in frustration. "Now is not the time, Sergeant."
Sergeant Jackson whispered in her ear.
Her expression turned sour, "You Gothamites are all the same with your-"
The Sergeant continued to whisper.
She turned and eyed Batman. "Are you trying to tell me that-"
The Sergeant whispered more insistently.
Amanda Waller paused, eyes shut in the timeless expression of a caretaker tired of cleaning up after children.
"Staff Sergeant, have the men escort Mister - ugh - Batman to my office. Then have them isolated to barracks until such a time as they can be properly debriefed." She walked to the doors. "And someone change his dressing. I will not have bleeding on my floor!"
It took a minute for everyone to walk (or be dragged) out of the surgery room. Then the lights were flipped off as the doors swung closed.
Six seconds later, Catwoman climbed out of the elevator shaft.
Her green "cape" was now a sling over her shoulder. The ends were tied to the handle of the heavy briefcase filled with research papers. This left her hands free to climb, or to hang awkwardly for four minutes as she listened to the commotion above her.
In Catwoman's felonious career, there had been one instance where someone tried to hire her to retrieve a person. The details didn't matter. She rejected the proposal out of hand. Managing a painting or a statuette was awkward enough, but at least those objects were inert. Trying to handle a squabbling, bumbling human being who was dumb enough to get captured in the first place was an uh-oh story waiting to happen.
Yet for some reason, the thought of simply leaving didn't occur to her.
No, that was a lie. Of course it occurred to her, but the idea didn't seem as appealing as it usually did.
Not that she had any idea what to do next, of course.
In contrast to her personal quarters, Amanda Waller's office was a modest size. It was no larger than its neighbors, with a desk and a set of filing cabinets. Inside her top desk drawer was a single-barrel sawed-off shotgun. She started their new conversation by pulling it out.
Batman was handcuffed to a wooden chair in front of the desk. In the corners behind him stood Colonel Tanner and Lieutenant Wilson. They were clearly spectators; this was Waller's stage, whoever she was. The space was tight between the four of them. Batman could sense their bodies, hear their breathing (the lieutenant's especially, his septum sounded like a pretzel). He was used to cozy interrogations, but rarely from this end.
The lone bulb cast long shadows on the bags under Waller's eyes. She began without preamble.
"I was wrong; I heard the name once. Only it wasn't the Bat Man then, it was the Beast of the Narrows or the Dark Wing or one of the dozen other stupid monikers that cropped up last year. He was a folk tale, a sort of patron devil to gangsters and dirty cops. The question is: are you sincerely deluded into believing you're the character of this myth, like some troubled men believe themselves to be Napoleon or Christ, or is all this," she gestured at his outfit, "an elaborate disguise for some other motive?"
Batman still fought the last traces of the painkiller. He managed to raise his head and look her in the eye. "I have no delusions. This is no disguise. I'm Batman."
"So I heard. Fine, you're a Bat Man. What should I call you?""
He glared at her.
"Oh. Oh, dear. You're serious! Ha. You actually call yourself that. Are you suggesting you started the myth? I thought it was just some dross the newspapers in your crummy burg made up on a deadline."
"When those newspapers know your atrocities here, they'll forget all about me."
"So that's it? You came for blackmail?"
"Not blackmail. Justice."
"An idealist! I guess you are delusional. And you've wasted your time. There are no atrocities here."
"I think Wendell and Alice Dupree would disagree, if you hadn't killed them."
Waller's eyes lowered to slits. She casually pumped the lever on her shotgun and walked around the desk. The Colonel and the Lieutenant stepped discreetly away from her line of fire.
"I think I've been carried away by the dramatics tonight. It doesn't matter what costume you have on. You're here for justice? Very well, I'll administer the law." She leaned forward. As a short woman, this put here just above eye level with him. "Mr. John Doe, you are under arrest for criminal trespassing, breaking and entering, battery, and conspiracy to commit espionage, though I have a feeling that's just the tip of the iceberg. Once the details of your identity are confirmed, we'll discover what rights you have under the Constitution or the Articles of War. Anything to say on your behalf?"
He looked thoughtfully at the top of the cabinet behind her.
"That's the casing of a German S-mine. Hops upward on a propelling charge nearly three feet before it detonates to extend its shrapnel. Diabolically efficient. Not many on this side of the Atlantic. How did you get it?"
Waller rose up, mildly taken aback. "A little store called None of Your Business. If you think you can impress me with a piece of trivia, you have another thing coming. Lieutenant, why is this Halloween mask still on?"
Lieutenant Wilson frowned. "The men said they couldn't find the fastener, and their instruments couldn't cut the hood material."
"Is that so?" She tilted Batman's chin up with her shotgun. "Care to share the secret?"
Batman said nothing.
"Didn't think so. Lieutenant, willing to give it a shot?"
"Try not to slit his throat in the process."
Lieutenant Wilson pulled out a long, serrated knife, held it beside the Dark Knight's chin, and started to saw. After four jagged tugs, the rugged cowl began to tear. He continued on the other side. Soon, both sides had enough slack to use. Wilson grabbed hold of the mask and pulled backwards ...
... Revealing another mask, a tight black fabric that hid most of his head. Whereas the cowl had holes for his eye-lenses, the lenses were actually part of this under-mask.
Amanda raised an eyebrow. "Really?"
Wilson tried to tear this second mask off, but it wouldn't shift a centimeter.
"Sorry, ma'am. It's like it's stuck to his scalp with industrial glue."
"Do I look like I carry industrial glue solvent? Cut it off."
"Much as I'd like to, the force would lop off a decent chuck of his skull."
"Well, that's just g-"
Suddenly, a sharp odor pervaded the air.
Colonel Tanner's breath stuck in his throat. His pupils dilated. He broke out in a cold sweat.
He screamed, "Gas! Gaaaas!"
Amanda Waller wrinkled her nose at the smell but frowned, "Colonel, please control yoursel-woaaaaah!" Tanner grabbed her by the arm, kicked open the door, and threw her through it. Lieutenant Wilson began to undo the handcuffs, but the Colonel smacked his arms away. "Get to fresh air 'fore it melts your eyes! That's an order! Now! Now! Now!"
They sprinted away like men possessed.
Eight seconds later, Catwoman stuck her head into the office.
Batman had just finished escaping the handcuffs. He looked up at her, mildly suspicious at his reversal of fortune.
She lifted an eyebrow, amused. "You've been Zorro this whole time?"
Batman tossed the handcuffs on the desk, unamused. He reached behind his head and pulled the cowl back over his eyes. Its hidden cords were severed, but it fit tightly enough to not slide off accidentally.
"How did ..." he paused in thought, "Chlorine bleach in the vents."
"Nothing gets past you, huh?" Catwoman sauntered in. "I brought a gift." She tossed him his utility belt.
He caught it and checked through the pouches with practiced swiftness, moving tools and vials around to match his preference.
"Thought I'd do you a favor and fill it up." She walked around him. "I can't believe you wear a mask under your mask."
Batman shrugged his cape aside and put on the belt. "I needed it, didn't I?"
She spotted his wound, "Hey, are you alright?"
He frowned, letting the cape hide his side again. "Three-inch laceration to the lower ribs; stitching's amateur but serviceable. I'm fine."
She moved the cape and touched his dressing in worried surprise. "You call this fine? What happened?"
He stepped away from her touch. "Naval saber."
"Are you saying you were stabbed ... with a sword?"
"A lateral cut, but yes."
"Who did it? A Cossack? A pirate?"
"A soldier. Won't happen again."
"Unless you have a time machine, I don't think it could happen again."
He grunted. He wanted to question why she would be so reckless as to save him; they had a mission to keep in mind. But he knew if their roles were reversed, his answer would make him a hypocrite.
Instead, he asked, "How did you know to try the bleach?"
"Your file said that Colonel Tanner suffered gas attacks in the war. I've met veterans; it's something a lot of them fixate on, and I happen to know that certain poison gases smell like chlorine. Seemed worth a try."
"I'm impressed you remembered that detail."
"Or any of it."
"Funny. Remind me again: who just pulled who's leather-clad derriere out of the fire?"
"It was ... an ambitious gamble."
"Awww, is that admiration in your voice? Are you just trying to say 'Thank you'?"
Batman normally wouldn't rise to the bait, but he didn't like the implication that he was too cowardly or aloof to express himself. Also, the lingering haze of the morphine was making it hard to keep his usual reticence.
"You're very welcome." She grinned, all dimples. "That was pretty genius of me."
He blinked away the blur in his vision and went to Amanda Waller's desk. "What was your plan if this hadn't worked?"
"Convince them to let you go with my natural charm and allure."
He looked through a drawer. "And when that failed?"
She slapped his shoulder. "Jerk."
"I found a crate downstairs with about fifty hand grenades."
This earned her an approving grunt.
She turned the question around. "Okay, what would you have done if I didn't come to your rescue?"
"If no other outside opportunity presented itself?"
"Weren't you handcuffed to a chair?"
"Dislocate thumbs, slip the handcuffs, and then kick them."
"Didn't they all have guns?"
"Kick them quickly."
"See, now I wish I had stayed out just to see that."